In Their Footsteps: Stomping in the Boots of My Feminist Foremothers
I don’t remember most of my bat mitzvah. At the ripe old age of twelve, I was expected to go before every single person my parents and grandparents had ever met, as well as my non-Jewish school friends, and sing in a foreign language about sacrificial animal slaughtering and bestiality, all while trying not to topple over in flashy high heels. The day was a whirlwind of embarrassment, anxiety attacks, and premature notions of adulthood. Overall, the event was not really for me, but more for my faith and my family.
The presents, however, were definitely for me.
At the conclusion of the festivities, I unwrapped about a hundred gifts, carefully navigating elaborate packages and parcels, and sorted them into categories. Jewelry was to the right, checks and bonds were to the left, and fragile Judaica was placed in between. Every gift fit into these classifications until I came across a box from my older cousin, Liya. I opened the package and meticulously shuffled through the white tissue paper to find a beefy letter and a worn-out pair of green combat boots.
“Great, more reading,” I stubbornly grunted to myself, and began to skim the letter. Although I assumed that it would contain nothing more than an “I love you, you’ve gotten so big!” note, it turned out to be so much more; in my hands, I possessed the powerful, hidden history of the Jewish women in my family.
Previous to my encounter with this beautifully written letter, I was somewhat aware of my ancestors. I already knew that my great-great-grandmother, Lena, had come to the United States alone when she was sixteen years old in order to avoid having an arranged marriage. I’m now embarrassed to say that I’d just assumed that she and all of her descendants had led quiet, American lives. This was not the case whatsoever.
As I learned in the letter, Lena was very involved in United States politics, despite the fact that she was probably unable to vote. She supported Eugene V. Debs and the socialist movement by translating his speeches into Yiddish; she ensured his words would be effectively communicated to the Yiddish-speaking Jewish residents of the Lower East Side. She was also an unrelenting feminist; at a time when birth control and abortions were mostly unsafe, illegal, or ineffective, she took it upon herself to help women claim sovereignty over their own bodies. She did so by performing knitting-needle abortions on her kitchen table (at least two of which she performed on herself). She gave birth to GG, my mother’s grandmother, who also grew up to do badass, feminist stuff (specifically involving classified work with the Jewish Mafia). This maternal line continued, and Liya and I are the most recent additions.
The green combat boots, Liya explained in the letter, have accompanied two other women in this maternal line for portions of their lives—the first of whom is my mother. My mother gave the Dr. Martens to Liya as a gift for her bat mitzvah. Liya then passed them on to me, ten years later. The physical state of the shoes when Liya gave them to me was indicative of their significance in the lives of the two people who had worn them before me; they were creased and worn-in. The silhouette of the shoes is unmistakably vintage 1990s Doc Martens, classic and stylish. But, above all, when I looked at this pair of shoes, I could tell that they weren’t just a fashion statement; instead, they were a declaration of war. I knew that my time with the Docs needed to be powerful and meaningful. Wearing the Docs would be almost like having an alter ego. When I put them on, I would be the most uncompromising and invincible version of myself.
During the second semester of my sophomore year, I decided to study abroad in Israel. The Docs were the first item on my packing list. Although this was my first time in Israel, the Docs basically had their own passport. My mom and my cousin had traipsed around the country in them for various periods of time over the last 25 years. I felt this connection on my first trip to the Kotel.
We entered the Old City on a Friday evening, just before Shabbat. Orthodox shopkeepers were whizzing around, making last-minute sales and then closing their store fronts just in time for sundown. Small boys in suits were chasing after their fathers’ confident strides, shtreimels present and fluffy. People on every street were hurrying around and speaking loudly in every tongue that wasn’t mine—like a modern day Tower of Babel. Amidst all of the commotion in this country that was completely new to me, I felt surprisingly calm and established in my surroundings. The jitter of my classmates melted away, and I suddenly felt like I was walking alone. My Docs were my compass in Jerusalem. I was in a spiritual trance and felt a gravitational pull to the Western Wall. The streets emptied, the people disappeared, and suddenly it was just me and my boots sliding against the polished cobblestone.
My Docs are so much more than just shoes. When I wear the boots, I carry the stories of all of the powerful women who came before me. I know that my great-great-grandmother is smiling down on me whenever I exercise a right that she battled for. When Liya had custody of the boots, she stomped in them. She faced off with people, she broke up fights, she marched, and she learned. Although I'm walking the beaten path that my family created for me, I know that I'm also a trailblazer; I'll trek even further for the next generation. I'm proud to be one of the fierce women of my bloodline.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Lieberperson, Goldi. "In Their Footsteps: Stomping in the Boots of My Feminist Foremothers." 30 November 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 9, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/their-footsteps-stomping-boots-my-feminist-foremothers>.